The prevailing attitude behind TV adman Bryan Buckley’s feature film debut, The Bronze, can be boiled down to a simplistic idea: the cruder, the better. Within minutes, Hope Ann Gregory’s (Melissa Rauch) putrid egoism is effectively established, as the former sports hero is seen fingering herself while watching footage of her heroic Olympic performance, in which she won a bronze medal in gymnastics while enduring a torn ACL. Wearing her old warmup suit and surrounded by endless memorabilia, she represents an image of humanity that’s the exact antithesis of, well, hope.
Humor often hinges on subverting audience expectations, and even gross-out farces have the potential to surprise. But The Bronze only bombards audiences with a sense of the familiar. The story, which follows the Kerri Strug-like Hope as she desperately clings to fame while living in Amherst, Ohio with her nebbish father (Gary Cole), offers a typical coming-of-age narrative, and its humor is beholden to an Apatow-esque mixture of sophomoric raunch and rom-com clichés. Hope, too, suggests a gender-flipped version of Eastbound and Down’s Kenny Powers.
The film, though, is bleakly comic in its depiction of how a powerful person manipulates and appeals to the emotions of a devoted follower. Hope is on the precipice of complete and total irrelevance until, through a series of overcomplicated circumstances, she becomes the coach of Maggie Townsend (Haley Lu Richardson), a mega-fan and fellow Amherst resident who’s poised to become America’s next great gymnast. Hope takes the opportunity to sabotage the upstart’s burgeoning Olympic career while salvaging her lost celebrity, and the script delivers a barbed critique of this exploitation.
When The Bronze premiered at Sundance over a year ago, it was long before Donald Trump emerged as a major presidential candidate, back when one could easily write the film off as a middling character piece weighed down by a general lack of imagination. Now, it’s difficult not to associate Hope, what with her toxic ambition, swirly blond hairdo, and hoo-rah sense exceptionalism, with Trump. Through The Bronze is by no means a salient, prescient political satire, it nevertheless illustrates the uniquely poisonous effect that charismatic ugliness can have on naïve admirers.
But to what end? By the film’s conclusion, Hope has predictably learned her lesson and promised her new boyfriend, Ben (Thomas Middleditch), that she’ll straighten up and fly right. But the final scene shows her treating a new slate of aspiring gymnasts with the same malevolence she foisted upon Maggie—which seems like the filmmakers’ idea of a final “gotcha” gag, and one that’s far more off-putting and abhorrent than a million female masturbation jokes. Ultimately, the film’s problem isn’t its crude humor, but its pessimism.